MEDIA: Clarke and Brown provide extra pressure for Blair

When Tony Blair gave his new year press conference defending his position on the war, most of us expected this to be the start of an all out propaganda offensive. How wrong we all were.

Since then Blair has had much more pressing issues to deal with closer to home.

His biggest headache has been 'top-up fees.' Ever since the Labour manifesto promised that they would not be introduced Blair has been forced onto the defensive. Not only have the proposals from Charles Clarke faced stiff opposition with Labour MPs, it has brought out into the open a potentially more dangerous war than that with Iraq - one with his Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Ever since Blair reneged on his deal not to stand as leader of the Labour Party if Brown wanted to run, the relationship between the two most powerful men in British politics has been strained. I've never trusted Blair but Brown is a far more forgiving man than I am. Despite what some of his enemies tell the media, Brown was quite happy to get on with his job as Chancellor on the terms agreed when he fell on his sword and gave Blair a free run for the leadership. This agreement gave Brown complete control of all economic policy and no one could argue that he has failed in his task.

The problem is that no Prime Minister has ever given such power to his Chancellor, and those around the Prime Minister have never accepted that there should be someone in government who they do not tell what to do.

The biggest thorn in Brown's side has not been Blair but Peter Mandelson, ironically the man who drew up the agreement giving Brown so much power.

Mandelson was happy to give Brown anything in order for him not to stand against Blair, and even persuaded the latter to tell his future Chancellor that he would stand down as Prime Minister after two terms. Blair, of course, had no intention of keeping to this promise, any more than he had not to stand in the first place, but Brown was more trusting.

With Blair showing no sign of wanting to go, is it any wonder that the Chancellor's relationship with the Prime Minister is strained?

For the first time, however, the differences between the two have become public and inevitably the row has been about a policy issue close to Brown's heart - education. Brown has a much more egalitarian view about higher education because of his own experiences. He doesn't believe that a man who went to public schools and Oxford understands what should be done.

While Blair was playing in his band 'Ugly Rumours' at university, Brown was fighting to become the first elected student chancellor. The latest row over education may blow away but it will not hide the ideological differences between the two men, and the continuing tension.

One question that Blair knew he would get from Sir David Frost at the weekend was about his relationship with Brown, so his answer was carefully worked out in advance. The fact that he could only refer to Brown in the past tense speaks volumes. Blair may be thinking he can do without Brown in the future, but he can't. He admitted Brown has been a 'fantastic' Chancellor, and the fact remains that the main reason why Labour is still way ahead in the opinion polls is due to Brown's handling of the economy.

Not only that, successful policies like the New Deal were not Blair's but Brown's.

The Labour Party and the unions would soon be in open revolt if Blair knifed his old friend in the back, and if Brown went, Blair would quickly follow. Maybe that's Gordon Brown's game plan?

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